On Being Innumerate

I am innumerate.

And what is that? most everyone will ask (except, perhaps, a few other sufferers.) It really is a word found in dictionaries, and it means
(in the simplest definition):  “marked by an ignorance of mathematics and the scientific approach.”

I’m pretty smart in my own field, which is letters, arranged in any form whatsoever, in books and magazines and newspapers and even on the backs of cereal boxes. Give me 26 letters, you give me the world.

But from kindergarten onward, simple arithmetic was a struggle. And math? Forget about it! Just the sight of numbers, and my eyes glaze over, and my brain tiptoes out to lunch. Imagine my delight, then, when today’s Writer’s Almanac brought this poem, wonderful poem! all about numbers, in exactly the way I could understand them if anyone had ever presented them to me like this:

Numbers

by Mary Cornish

I like the generosity of numbers.
The way, for example,
they are willing to count
anything or anyone:
two pickles, one door to the room,
eight dancers dressed as swans.

I like the domesticity of addition—
add two cups of milk and stir—
the sense of plenty: six plums
on the ground, three more
falling from the tree.

And multiplication’s school
of fish times fish,
whose silver bodies breed
beneath the shadow
of a boat.

Even subtraction is never loss,
just addition somewhere else:
five sparrows take away two,
the two in someone else’s
garden now.

There’s an amplitude to long division,
as it opens Chinese take-out
box by paper box,
inside every folded cookie
a new fortune.

And I never fail to be surprised
by the gift of an odd remainder,
footloose at the end:
forty-seven divided by eleven equals four,
with three remaining.

Three boys beyond their mothers’ call,
two Italians off to the sea,
one sock that isn’t anywhere you look.

“Numbers” by Mary Cornish, from Red Studio. © Oberlin College Press, 2007.

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24 Responses to On Being Innumerate

  1. love it. When i saw your title I was ready to launch into a poem beginning with
    I’d rather be innumerate
    than be illiterate,
    but how would I make stew
    if I couldn’t count out two
    potatoes, one potatoe
    three potatoes more.
    oops, one just rolled out the door.

    okay, I need to go do something before i drive everyone, including you, crazy!

    Like

  2. reb says:

    Wonderful poem! The ones in the comments section too 🙂

    I was the same as you, in school. A hopeless case, it felt like my brain began to boil when I thought about math. It still does. BUT … there is something … I have a fascination with numbers and an incredible memory for numbers, like phone numbers, even though I haven’t used them for years. That’s why I mentioned the Fibonacci numbers in a post some time ago.

    I think, perhaps, had it been presented to me in a different way, as a child …. I would have taken an interest in it — I’ll never know. Writing, languages … those were my things in school. Could hardly wait for grade 4, when we got to start English.

    Like

    • Touch2Touch says:

      Yeah, same story, second verse. But I think you’re remarkable with that memory for numbers. And of course knowing what Fibonacci numbers are impresses me enormously. (Are they Italian, like uno due tre 😉

      Like

      • reb says:

        they could be … they are many … 0, 1, 1, 2, 3, 8, 13, 21, 34 and it goes on and on … forever?!

        Like

        • Touch2Touch says:

          If you say so, love. The eyes start glazing over at 21 — and what the principle is, I know not!

          Like

          • reb says:

            I missed 5 when I typed that sequence … put in 5 there, then you’ll perhaps see the principle..

            Like

          • Touch2Touch says:

            I will do so (she said warily) —
            Five minutes later —
            I didn’t see it, but I Googled it and found a kids’ site and now I see it —
            What attracts me is that somehow it’s behind those gorgeous things in nature like the vegetable broccoli romanesco, which has wonderful repeating patterns —
            I’m still in awe, Rebekah.

            Like

  3. Pauline says:

    Numbers multiply with impunity, they don’t always add up. They can be replaced with A or B and when you deal with negative numbers, less can be more. Someone else can have your number, and when your number is up, you’re a goner. Give me letters, please.

    Like

  4. Madhu says:

    What a lovely poem! Agree with Reb above,.it isn’t us, it is the way we were taught 🙂 For now I have my calculator handy and my phone numbers on speed dial.

    Like

    • Touch2Touch says:

      Would you believe, I’m not even really proficient on the calculator! But it’s better than the head —
      (It makes me very happy though that my grandchildren are all really good with numbers, having had a father who made number play part of the family games.)
      Thanks for coming by and following. Much appreciated!

      Like

  5. Just reading this poem made my head hurt and palms sweat! Thankfully I have one daughter who loves math. The other is like me and struggles greatly. The one that is good helps us with homework assignments. 🙂 Hooray, as a mother I have been saved from those dreadful equations once again!

    Like

    • Touch2Touch says:

      Funny how that works, isn’t it? One area where I think genetics is really powerful — Either you have the genes, or you don’t. Glad your one can save two. Speaking of numbers 😉

      Like

  6. My name is Jen and I’m an innumerate, too. God bless my accountant, financial planner and insurance agent. All three will attest to my own glazed-eyes reaction to numbers. I think if they could draw pictures for me, they would – instead they speak slowly and use yellow highlighters for the important things. I am most grateful.

    Like

  7. I love this. It is wonderful to have a name for my affliction! After they graduated from grade school, I sent my kids to their Dad for help with their math homework. I’m very good with language, and my novel, The Keeper of the Crystal Spring, was a Doubleday Book-of-the-Month Club selection. But my son still laughs about the time we went to sign up to join a health club, and the guy started to explain all the options to us. I said, “Please, please stop! I can’t stand all these numbers!” Great post!

    Like

  8. I’m one of those fellow sufferers who knew immediately what the word meant!
    Fortunately my children don’t seem to have inherited my handicap – in fact, they’re both numerate whizzes. Maybe it is mostly about how it’s explained to us at school? I like to think so!

    Like

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